How the Choir Converted the World: Through Hymns, with Hymns, and in Hymns

How the Choir Converted the World:
Through Hymns, with Hymns, and in Hymns

by Mike Aquilina
(Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016)

Back in the 80s, when people were talking about back-masking and I was listening to a lot of “charismatic” music, I never bothered to learn about the Church’s experience with or teaching about music. It is only so many years later that this book has come my way now and finally, the real meaning of “Christian music” is beginning to come together in my mind.

The “choir converted the world” because music was a weapon that strengthened the faithful, protected and disseminated the faith and fended off the faithless.

As with many other elements of our Church, it all began with the way the Jews used music.

The Musical Tradition of the Israelites
Music was very much a part of Jewish life and worship and the Israelites’ musical tradition was known and appreciated even by their neighbours and captors, as we can see from the example of the Babylonians demanding that the Israelites sing for them (Psalm 137:1-4).

Some interesting points about the Jewish musical tradition:

Connection between music and prophecy
The Hebrew word for “make music” also means “prophecy”, and this music involved using musical instruments such as the tambourine and dancing, as in the examples of Miriam (Ex 15:20-21)and Deborah (Judges 5:12).

Commemoration of important events with music
Music and song were significant in major life events, such as in Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and some of David’s psalms.

Role of David, king composer
David’s psalms ranged from personal prayers to songs for public worship. With him, all musical instruments were suitable for praising God and his psalms became the foundational model for songs of worship.

Musical instruments
The first record of liturgy starts with the sounding of the trumpet in the exodus. In the Old Testament, the trumpet signifies God’s presence and is also used in war and sacrifice. Other instruments recorded include the harp, tambourine, flute and lyre, all of which are connected with prophesying.

The Israelites’ Apprehension about Music as Used by the Pagans
Although music was so entrenched in Jewish life and worship, the Israelites were well aware that it was also an important part of worship in the pagan temples. Isaiah, for example, warned about being trapped in this potent mix of music, wine and food (Is 5:11-12).

Early Christians’ Apprehension about Music as Used by the Pagans
This suspicion about music carried over into the early Church as music was also a significant element of pagan worship of the time. The Greek and Roman empires had rich traditions of music, which, like their other forms of art, were rooted in religion, and music was strongly associated with worship practices such as those relating to their gods or to evil spirits, and their wild revelry, orgies and rites of human sacrifice.

Thus, early Christians kept their distance from music. It just had too many heinous associations and they also saw that it had a direct effect on a person’s “moral behaviour”. Commenting on this point, Aquilina adds a reminder that modern popular music does also link to the “worst behaviour”.

Music in the Early Church
Nevertheless, music was used in the early Church, one of the obvious ways being in the musical traditions inherited from Jewish practice. Songs were commonly used in private and public worship. As the early generations of Christians continued to worship in the Temple and synagogues, they would have sung the psalms that Jesus and His disciples, and generations of Israelites before them, would have sung. The New Testament records the use of music in the early Church, such as in St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:16-17). Bible scholars recognise hymns within some epistles, such as Ephesians 5:14, 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Revelation records a number of singing scenes.

Early Christian Music
The earliest evidence of Christian music was a hymn written with its notation on a piece of papyrus, just before year 300. By then, Christians were using psalms as well as some music based on Greek and Roman music styles although, on the whole, they tended to exclude dancing and musical instruments due to their pagan associations. There were Christians who argued that since people enjoyed music, it could be used to attract them to God. However, many early Christians felt that converts were not searching for what they used to have as pagans and so there was no need to adopt pagan styles of music. Eventually, early Christians developed “simple and vocal singing”, and here, we see the role of specific musical saints.

For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch introduced “antiphonal” singing, in which the congregation sang responses in “one voice”. This style of music was an expression of being in union with the whole congregation as well as with the whole of creation, in praise of God.

Music in the Battle against Heresy
Some leaps in the development of early Christian music arose out of staving off heretics. Some heretics gained a lot of success partly with “catchy tunes” to attract converts, resulting in some Christians distancing themselves even more from music. Others, on the other hand, took on the heretics at the music arena and turned it into a Christian victory of sorts.

By then, “private psalms” were written and sung, and Arius used this genre to promote his brand of beliefs, together with his set of “catchy melodies”. Other heretics such as Marcion, Valentius, Bardaisan and his son Harmonious wrote their own psalms. Some heretical psalms are also found in the “acts” of several Apostles; these were mostly the work of heretical sects.

In response, the Church specified that only psalms from Scripture could be used. St. Ephrem of Syria adapted Harmonious’ method of hymn-writing (Harmonious had developed a form of poetry by modifying Greek rules of metre and music for the Syriac language), established and trained female choirs (Bardaisan method) and wrote hymns that were theologically and spiritually sound and yet easy for people to comprehend and memorise. Some of his hymns specifically targeted the false teachings of Arius and Bardaisan.

Another saint who played his musical part was St. Ambrose, a prominent figure in the battle against Arius. He developed the Ambrosian Rite, a form of the chant with antiphonal singing of short lines and catchy rhythms. Many of his hymns end with a verse of doxology in praise of the Trinity. With his grounding in classical poetry, his musical work also engaged the “intellectual elite”. Most Church music composed in Latin during the Middle Ages continued to use his 8-syllable verse metre.

Elsewhere, much work went into preserving the faith, such as in a long poem composed to disprove the Marcionite heresy and in the new western style of hymns developed by musicians such as St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Thus, in some way, it was Christian music that beat the heretics at their game.

Theology of Christian music
The next stage was the development of a sound understanding of the role of Christian music. St. Augustine was among those who were cautious about indulging in the pleasure of music. Importantly, his conversion began with his hearing a child sing. Eventually, he developed the explanation that if music is used correctly, it should lead us to the “higher things on which we should be focused”. Thus, the Christian musician is responsible for ensuring that the music leads the faithful “upward”. With music understood in this light, it became legitimately part of Christian liturgy.

In time, the role of music in the liturgy developed and “cantor” became an office of the Church. Years down the road, the Gregorian chant was developed and more years further down, after Guido of Arezzo’s invention of the musical staff, Church music grew to include more singers, voices, choruses and orchestras, blossoming with the many inspired Mass settings and religious music that came from the pens of various composers.

Te Deum: Our “Catholic Fight Song”
In the tradition of drowning out the attractions of pagan and heretical music and ideas, the Te Deum is a typical Catholic hymn filled with spirituality and theology, such that some see it as “the Creed set to music”. It has inspired many composers to write the music for its words and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name is the English form by which many of us know it.

Looking at these centuries of musical history, we can see that music was a gift from God that man in return could use to glorify Him. At the same time, it was a source of strength and, when used correctly with the correct spiritual substance, it gave Christians the power to preserve the right teachings, and right worship of the right God. Hence, it can be said that it was Christian music that helped defend Christianity against all sorts of attacks.

May our songs and music continue to defend our faith and to convert the world.

♫ Definitely time to sing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name